Virgin Mobile USA nixes fully unlimited prepaid plans

No one can say it was unexpected: Sprint, the lone major wireless provider still offering true unlimited plans, has just decided to test out the data-limiting water with its recently-acquired Virgin Mobile USA service. Virgin’s prepaid plans will still be fully unlimited until October, when Sprint says it will start throttling customers’ data speeds based on usage.

Sprint users needn’t worry, because the change is limited to the Virgin brand. But depending on how cynical you are, Sprint is either reshaping its Virgin business plan to face the fact that an unlimited prepaid service is hard to find success with, or, more dastardly, testing out the reaction to data metering in a sub-brand before rolling it out across the board.

“Based on current usage patterns, fewer than three percent of Virgin Mobile USA customers use more than 2.5GB of data usage per month,” Virgin said in a statement. “After reaching this level, this minority of customers may experience slower page loads, file downloads and streaming media.”

Data wise, the Virgin plan is still technically unlimited, but users who reach a 2.5GB monthly threshold will see data speeds reduced dramatically until the next month’s cycle begins. The lower rate is a paltry 256KB per second; Virgin’s 3G hotspot, for example, advertises normal speeds between 600 and 1400 kbps.

The plan mirrors T-Mobile, who first used the idea of data-throttling, as opposed to AT&T and Verizon who force users to pay for more data once they exceed the cap. It’s tough to tell which type of plan will be more successful. T-Mobile and now Virgin still offer unlimited data, albeit at reduced speeds, but customers won’t be hit with extra fees. With AT&T and Verizon, however, customers have to pay extra once they exceed the limit, but aren’t stuck with a slow phone for the rest of the month. And while Sprint users are as yet unaffected, they can’t be blamed if they feel like the clock is ticking.

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